Seamus Heaney, “A Hagging Match”

A Hagging Match (from The New Yorker)
Seamus Heaney

Axe-thumps outside
like wave-hits through
a night ferry:
whom I cleave to, hew to,
splitting firewood.


Picked up Heaney’s District and Circle Thursday, reading most of it the last few days. A number of the poems feature startling violence in the everyday: turnips shredded, pigs butchered, the landscape cultured. Everything an assault on being itself, arms and the man the most necessary meditation.

The above poem is no exception to the rule. “Hagging” is exactly what it sounds like, and “a hagging match” might be thought a more refined version of what so-called pickup artists pursue. A much more refined version, to be sure. The poem does not seem to be about getting anyone to sleep with one, as male empowerment is not at stake. Rather, the poem concerns how erotic desires continually become devotion and vice versa.

The home, the hearth, starts with axe-thumps. Not just the building of the everyday, not only an expense of effort, but a destructive force that requires anger. You can’t really love someone without standing up for yourself; a hagging match starts with two individuals. The “axe-thumps outside” are “like wave-hits through a night ferry;” the violence of our ends is replaced by the violence of the unknown. The very structures we hope will keep us safe trap us. The night ferry could very well be a tomb.

Yet the imagery has softened, and one gets the sense that the speaker is being conveyed. Anger and force have given way to fear and wonder; the wine-dark sea is dark and deep. Did the speaker have second thoughts after an argument? In the very center of the poem, “you,” the beloved. As I cut apart this wood to make a fire, as I know that any structure is a trap, I cleave to you, I hew to you, loving the distinctly human. I love that we’re lost together. The very language of unity is that of disunity, our natural togetherness a forced split. One might go further and say there is only imperfect love, for to insist on perfect love is to ask for no love at all.

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